Friday, August 26, 2011

"Faith is a Full-Contact, Participation Sport" (August 28, 2011)

Homily: Yr A Proper 22, August 28 2011, St. Albans
Readings:  Ex 3:1-15; Ps105:1-6,23-26,45c; Rom 12:9-21; Mt 16:21-28

 “Faith is a full-contact, participation sport”
One of my favourite preachers, David Lose, likes to say that today’s readings illustrate that “faith is a full-contact, participation sport”.  One person who seems to have known that and lived it out is Jack Layton, a man whose commitment to service and to social justice was formed as a teenager in the United Church.  And so I think it is fitting that we pay tribute to him today, as so many Canadians have all this week, and remember the final words that he wrote, words that are at the heart of the gospel, that love is better than anger and hope is better than fear.

One of Jack’s teachers was an eminent philosopher and fellow NDPer from Montreal named Charles Taylor.  A few years ago I started reading one of Taylor’s books.  It’s a big, thick, heavy book called A Secular Age. In this book, Taylor analyzes the last five hundred years of Western civilization to see how it is that we went from a culture where Christian belief was the norm and seemed to happen almost by default, to today’s situation where there is a wide range of attitudes and beliefs that are held in our society.

Now I have to admit, I still haven’t finished reading the whole thing.  But there is one thing in his work that has struck me so far.   Suppose you were to ask people a big question like “Why are we here on this planet anyways?” or “What is the goal of human life?”  Taylor observes that people will give two very different sorts answers.

The first stance that many people would take is that the highest goal of life is what we might call human flourishing.  Our purpose is to make sure our needs are looked after, to stay healthy, to be happy, to live in good relationships with each other, to be able to do the things we want to do, to grow and to flourish.  And many people would say this not just in a self-interested way, not just about me, but in a mutual way, that each one of us should live our lives in such a way that not only I flourish, but others can flourish as well.

But there is a second way of answering the question of the purpose of human life which is quite different.  A second group of people would certainly agree that it’s good for humans to flourish, to be happy and do well, but they wouldn’t agree that we should focus on this as our highest goal in life.  Instead they look for something more.  This second stance says that we need to go beyond what is normally understood as human flourishing, and that this requires a transformation in the way we see things and the way we live.

I think that that is where Jesus is trying to take his disciples, and through them, each one of us in today’s gospel.  He’s inviting each of us to a transformation in our lives that is so profound that the image used for it is death and new life.  The new way that Jesus is proposing, the way of the cross, is a radical centring of our lives in God that involves dying to the way of life that is measured in terms of how well we are doing. 

You remember that I told you last week that we’d reached a turning point in Matthew’s gospel.  Up until chapter 15, it might have been possible to categorize Jesus simply as a great moral teacher and a great healer whose mission was to make things better, that is, someone who promotes what we normally understand as human flourishing.  But in today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to see something more, to go beyond the usual human point of view.   To set our mind, as Jesus tells Peter, on divine things, not on human things.

How do we set our mind on divine things?  Jesus himself serves as our example.  By centring his life in God, through his prayer life and his study of Scripture, by listening to God and discerning God’s will, by engaging with those he encounters, Jesus has come to understand that his calling and his purpose go beyond teaching and healing.  He has been called to proclaim the Kingdom of God, the presence and activity of God in our midst.  He does this both through his words and his actions, and that means that in today’s gospel, Jesus turns towards Jerusalem in the full knowledge that he risks rejection and death at the hands of the political and religious authorities.  Now Jesus was no masochist.  He had no desire to die on a cross, we know that from his prayer of agony in Gethsemane the night before his death.  But he was willing to give up the relative comforts of life in Galilee to risk death in Jerusalem in order to take up the mission that God was calling him to. 

Let’s have a look at another example of transformation, of going beyond normal human expectations of flourishing to living life in relationship with God.  In our first reading we heard the story of Moses.  If you remember, Moses had to flee Egypt because he had killed an Egyptian who was beating one of the Hebrew slaves.  But by the time of today’s reading, Moses has settled in the land of Midian east of Egypt.  He’s doing well:  he’s married his wife Zipporah, they’ve had a son and Moses is working as a shepherd. 

It’s been many years now since Moses left Egypt, and he has no intention of going back.  But one day when Moses is beyond the wilderness, literally in the middle of nowhere, he sees a strange sight, a bush which is burning but doesn’t get consumed.  And in a suggestive phrase the story tells us that Moses turns aside to look.  He was going down one path, but he turns aside and changes his path.  And seeing that Moses has turned aside, God calls his name, “Moses, Moses”.  Moses replies, “Here I am”

Then God gives him the message.  I want you to go back to Egypt and lead my people out of slavery.  You can imagine what Moses might have been thinking.  Go back to Egypt?  I’m wanted for murder back there.  It’s taken me twenty years to build a nice comfortable life for myself and my family here in Midian, and you want me to try to convince the Egyptians to give up the slaves that build their cities and pyramids for them.  And so Moses objects, in fact he objects four times to the mission God has given him.  Who am I to do such a thing?  Nobody will listen to me, I don’t even speak well?  But each time God has an answer, and in the end Moses agrees.  He gives up his life as a shepherd in Midian and risks death to return to Egypt in order to take up the new life that God has called him to.

This is an illustration of what Jesus means when he says in today’s gospel that if any want to become my  followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  Deny yourself?  It means a willingness to let go of the things of ordinary human flourishing, our comforts, our security, even our hopes and dreams.  Take up the cross?  It means that if we are to accept God’s calling in our lives, we accept the risk that there may be pain and suffering along the way.  Peter doesn’t get this in today’s gospel.  He tries to separate Jesus’ calling as Messiah from the suffering that will result, but Jesus won’t let him.  Following Jesus means loving God and loving your neighbour, and to truly love is to open ourselves up to the risk of suffering along the way.

And so we have in today’s readings the invitation to set our mind on God and to follow Jesus, and the lives of Moses and Jesus himself to give us an idea of what that might look like.  It is a marked departure from the way many people live their lives.  It is a transformation.  If we live in relationship with God, we open ourselves up to the same sort of transformation that Moses experienced. 

We do have a choice to make.

There is the humanist option, the stance that the highest goal of human life is for humans to have what they need, to do well and to flourish, with no reference to God required.

Or there is the possibility of living life in relationship with God, and engaging in the difficult business of figuring out what God wants us to do with our lives.  Now I know that sometimes the notion of doing “what God wants us to do” can sound intimidating and that it turns some people off.  But I think we can trust that what the one who created us and loves us wants for us, is what we would want for ourselves if we knew ourselves as well as God knows us.  God’s calling for us should resonate with our own passions and desires.  But that doesn’t mean that it won’t be disruptive!

Faith is a full contact, participation sport.  Moses learns who God is by following the path which God has set out for him.  Jesus invites us to follow him in a way of life which begins with God and takes us way beyond normal human flourishing.  And by centring ourselves in God, we’ll find that we really do flourish, in ways that we never dreamed possible. 

Where is God calling you this morning?  What path are you being called to follow?


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